- Historic Sites
Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?
Americans first learned to read to save their souls, then to govern themselves. Now the need is not so clear.
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Aunt Delight visited the little boy’s parents that evening and he was properly rebuked for his impudence. Goodrich says that he “achieved the alphabet” that summer and attended the school for the next few years, learning to write and making “a little progress” in arithmetic. His teacher in those years was a man, and he adds, “There was not a grammar, a geography, or a history of any kind in the school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the only things taught, and these very indifferently—not wholly from the stupidity of the teacher, but because he had forty scholars, and the Standards of the age required no more than he performed.” This, by the way, was the only formal education Goodrich received.
The deficiencies of such schools as Aunt Delight’s became increasingly troubling to educators as the nineteenth century progressed. Education itself was gradually becoming professionalized as state governments began to exert more control over local educational systems, as state “normal” schools were established to train teachers, and as the graded school, in which children were divided into grades according to their age, became standard. These changes were largely the work of educational reformers such as Horace Mann; the irony is that their reforms eventually solidified in highly bureaucratic school systems, which in turn inspired new waves of reform, creating a cycle of bureaucratization and reform that is still with us.
The teaching of reading was an early target of the reformers, who were appalled by the deadening effects of long hours of rote memorization on a child’s enthusiasm for learning. The influential reformer Thomas Palmer described the problem well in his Teacher’s Manual, published in 1840:
“The first branch of knowledge, to which the attention of the child is directed on entering school, is Reading. Hitherto his studies have been altogether delightful. His progress has been constant and rapid; for, as yet, he has dealt with nothing but real knowledge. No barren sounds, no unintelligible words have occurred, to embarrass and impede him. But now, very different becomes his situation. A book is placed in his hands, which he is told he must learn to read, that he may know how to become wise and good, and he is delighted with the prospect. But, alas! how grievous the disappointment! For months, nay, sometimes for years, his studies consist of nothing but mere sounds, to which it is impossible he can annex any idea whatever. His school-hours are solely occupied with As and Bs, abs, ebs, and ibs. Now, what must be the effect of all this, upon an intelligent child?”
The answer, said Palmer, was woolgathering. All this memorization led to “the habit of mental wandering.” Horace Mann pointed out that not only was rote memorization stultifying, it was irrational as well, for the sounds of the letters—that is, the sounds of their names—did not correspond to the way they actually sounded when combined into words: “When a child is taught the three alphabetic sounds l e g, and then is told that these three sounds, when combined, make the sound leg, he is untaught in the latter case what he was mistaught in the former. L e g does not spell leg, but if pronounced quickly, it spells elegy.” As a solution to the problem, Palmer, Mann, and other reformers advocated a method derived from French and German educators—the Prussians were especially inventive in the field of primary education—in which the student was first taught whole words, learning the alphabet only after he had mastered a small vocabulary. The idea was to arouse the child’s interest by letting him see how letters were arranged in meaningful combinations before requiring him to learn the letters.